To cop a lyric from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Nov. 6 all-musical episode, Where Do We Go From Here? For five years, Buffy has been the least-watched great show on television, the most ridiculed by ignorati who think they're literati. Like its peers (The West Wing, The Sopranos, ER), Buffy is better than movies because its writer is the most important guy on the set.
But now creator Joss Whedon has basically turned Buffy over to his lieutenant, Marti Noxon, and his crack writing crew while he directs movies and spins off new shows: a cartoon Buffy and a BBC series starring Anthony Stewart Head, who plays Buffy's high-school librarian and watcher (vampire-slaying mentor) Giles. Buffy's story line echoes scary reality: Joss the Watcher is leaving the kids in control, just as newly motherless Buffy,
A lack of sameness is why Buffy is confined to tiny networks and snubbed by Emmys. Television demands comforting rituals: the safely contained crises of ER, the catch phrases, the familiar settings and static characters. TheWest Wing has the reassuring, smug hum of a sewing machine. You could say of it what Randall Jarrell said of Richard Wilbur's verse: It "obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing." It's an effortless wish-fulfillment fantasy, and that's what always wins awards. Buffy is not afraid of exploring dark, unfamiliar places. This imperils her popularity. Even audiences who foment revolution unconsciously crave tradition: Belushi's "But noooo!" refrain and the Wild and Crazy Czech brothers got no laughs on SNL until tireless repetition trained us to get the joke.
You can't know what to expect on Buffy. At first, it was an Archie archetype: four friends and an avuncular teacher whose high school is the mouth of hell, beset by a different monster each week—each monster cleverly illustrating actual teen experience. "People are scarier than monsters," says Whedon. Like a comet, the most brilliant monster metaphor knocked the whole show onto a new course: Whedon and Noxon had Buffy lose her virginity on her 17th birthday, and the next morning her kindly boyfriend turned cold and cruel due to an ancient curse. Same thing happened last week, after Buffy's kid sister Dawn's first kiss. Nota bene, girls: Boys will be vampires. Buffy is reality programming.
But it breaks the iron law of TV formula. It ruthlessly mocks its own conventions and catch phrases (and pop culture in general). It's a big ratings deal when Sherry Stringfield exits or returns to ER. On Buffy, more central characters have now left the show than there were central characters to begin with. Relationships morph, characters become good or evil, uncannily nonhuman, or gay. Faced with overwhelming pressure to handle sensitive issues with Very Special Episode sanctimony and obvious right-thinking agitprop, Whedon is stubbornly, heroically, creatively perverse. Buffy boasts the least stupid shows ever done on date rape, teen suicide, and seducer teachers. After Willow Rosenberg, the witch, got an enchanted gal-pal, scandalizing viewers shocked by realistic lesbian characters, Whedon spoke out: "I've made a mistake by trying to shove this lifestyle—which is embraced by, maybe, at most, 10 percent of Americans—down people's throats. So I'm going to take it back, and from now on,
Faced with the classic Gasoline Alley/Archie dilemma—if you've got a bunch of kids, are they going to age or be a standing wave of youth?—Buffy riskily, passionately embraced change. Any episode of Friends or Frasier is essentially self-contained. You can pick up enough about the scene and the ongoing soap opera to grasp what's going on fast. But Buffy is a blur, a hell-bound train, and if you're a newcomer not up to speed, the story is not going to wait for you. Its approach to newbie viewers is akin to the notorious Microsoft memo about employees: Prune the Laggards.
A month into the new, Noxon-watched Buffy, it's time to take stock. When Buffy clawed her way out of her coffin in the season opener, she emerged as bewildered as a new viewer. The two-minute introduction, "Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was comically incomprehensible, and the world she returned to is utterly different from that of the early episodes. Compare the scene the last time Buffy came back from the dead, at the start of Season 2. The show was deft, funny, playing off instantly recognizable high-school romantic roundelays.
But Noxon is not Whedon. He admiringly called Noxon "the suicide girl," and death is certainly her gift. A melodramatist of genius, she plumbs emotional depths beyond her boss's ken. Yet she lacks his quicksilver touch—he wrote 90 percent of Speed, for God's sake—and the Buffy-back-from-the-dead episodes had a lead foot, demons who just went through the motions, and a seven-minute climax that should've taken two. Plus, she can't write a joke to save her life, nor Buffy's. Fortunately, the rest of the staff can write jokes, but nobody in Season 6 has yet matched the original Whedon team in mixing Buffy's ineffable cocktail of laughs, tears, and undead-ass-kicking action.
Now that Buffy's mom is dead (a traumatic milestone in TV history) and her watcher is off to his British series, her house is full of young adults casting about for identity. The plots—about getting a first job, coping with money, domestic quarrels, getting married—lack the resonance of the teen-age Buffy years. Comparing grown-up Buffy to her old self, one thinks of C.S. Lewis, who said he never read a memoir in which the childhood wasn't the best part because everyone can relate. The new adventures of Buffy are simply less universal. Now the show's focus shifts from Buffy (star Sarah Michelle Gellar has maybe two years on her contract) to Willow, who's getting corrupted by absolute witchy power (Alyson Hannigan is the show's top acting talent), and Buffy's 15-year-old sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg is clearly being groomed for stardom after Gellar quits). The story shapes are vaguer. One senses an endgame afoot.
Not that team Buffy isn't constantly striving for improvement. For instance, the writers have polished the show's excellent innovation on the classic fistfight. Most on-screen punches are the typical John Wayne type, accompanied by a sound "somewhere between the click of billiard balls and the crack of a rifle" (as Garry Wills observed). Buffy's fight scenes are post-Jackie Chan, and when she spikes a vamp, instead of spurting hackneyed horror gore, they say, "Dude, that sucks!" and vanish in a puff of dust. In recent episodes, the vampires briefly turn to skeletons before crumbling—a nice touch.
Much about Buffy has gotten better since the first, no-budget shows, when they couldn't afford their own graveyard, and the show has suffered nothing like The Sopranos' falloff in quality. It still makes Sex and the City look sickly. Noxon's crew valiantly strives to fulfill Buffy's ambition: "I realize every slayer comes with an expiration mark on the package, but I want mine to be a long time from now, like a Cheeto." Buffy is still addictive.
But I've begun to doubt if she will ever be immortal again.